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Staycation Tips

Although I’ve taken several mini-trips around our great state this year I’m staying close to home this summer. With so many wonderful places to enjoy around here what’s not to love? Well maybe I’m planning on a bigger trip next year but for now I have so much beauty and wildlife right outside my window, I’m content.

Picture you and your family this summer outdoors during your “Staycation”, relaxing, cooking on the barbie, entertaining, playing with the kids or maybe just reading in the shade. Maybe you need to make some changes to truly have a relaxing backyard. Here are some ideas to get you started on your backyard makeover.

DIY gazebo

Make sure you have enough shade in your garden to keep everyone comfortable. Whether it’s several umbrellas that provide the shade, a handmade gazebo, a tree or a combination , no one wants to bake in the sun. Plus your beverage gets hot if left in the sun.

If you decide you need a shade tree in the yard, there are so many good choices for our area. First, determine how wide and tall you want your tree to grow. Next, know your soil and growing conditions. Those who live in sandy areas might consider a strawberry tree, chitalpa, crape myrtle, Grecian laurel, fruitless olive, Chinese pistache, Purple Robe locust, California pepper tree or native oak. Good choices for those who live with clay soil are arbutus ‘Marina’, western redbud, hawthorn, gingko, Norway or silver maple. If you have quite a bit of shade but still need a bit more for the patio area, think dogwood, strawberry tree, Eastern redbud or podocarpus.

What would entice everyone out to the backyard after dark when it’s cooler? How about a simple metal fire bowl set on gravel, brick or pavers? If a piece of crackling firewood throws any sparks, they fall on the the gravel and expire.

How about a hidden getaway to read or just sit and relax? All you need is a quiet nook carved out of the larger garden. Place a comfortable chair or love seat on some flagstone pavers, add a table and a dramatic container planted with flowers or colorful foliage and your retreat is complete.

Memorial Day Cornhole Championship. Pictured with me and Sherman is Joy Souza

And what outdoor living place would be complete with a cornhole game? Friends of mine take this bean bag toss game everywhere. Camping, the beach, poolside or on the patio – it’s fun for everyone. Even a rookie can toss, slide or airmail the bag directly in the hole while pushing his opponent’s bag off the board or, as often is the case, pushing it in the hole along with your own. It’s a fun game for all ages and you can easily make a DIY board if you want. I had no idea it was America’s favorite backyard game. There’s even a Pro Cornhole Championship on ESPN. Who knew?

After you’ve planted your tree, planned your hidden getaway, set up your corn hole game and sat around the fire pit in the evening, take advantage of the rest of the summer to enjoy your own piece of paradise.

Shade Gardening Ideas

Some of us garden in shade. We may live under the trees so that shade is year round. Maybe most of your shade happens in the winter. Maybe your garden is morning shade but in the afternoon it gets a blast of hot summer sun. What’s a gardener to do? The choices for sunny locations are many but for those of us who garden in shady or partially shady places we have a tough time finding good, reliable plants. Looking back over the years,

Daphne odora ‘ Maejima;

Looking for shade tolerant flowering shrubs to cut for bouquets? Fragrant daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub or small tree with blooms that smell like apricots in winter. For summer fragrance grow Carol Mackie or Summer Ice daphne.

Plants to grow in dry shade areas include bergenia, mahonia, nandina filamentosa and fragrant sarcococca. Clivia, Viburnum ‘Mariesii’. Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets and the leaves turn red in fall which is an added bonus.

Chinese Ground Orchid ( bletilla striata)

Chinese Ground Orchid ( Bletilla striata ) is another of my favorites plants for shade. A natural companion for ferns and wildflowers, this plant is tougher than it looks. Vivid, magenta blooms resembling small cattleya orchids emerge on long stalks for about 6 weeks in the spring.

Queen’s Tears

Every spring I look forward to the unique flowers of my Queen’s Tears billbergia. This pineapple relative makes a vigorous, deer resistant groundcover under trees without becoming invasive. Exotic looking rosy-red spikes are topped with drooping pink, blue and green flowers that look like dangling earrings. Insects never bother them. Give them a little water now and then and forget them. They’re that easy to grow.

Lobelia cardinalis

California native Western Wild Ginger and Pacific Coast Iris grow well in shade also as do Western Sword fern and Woodwardia ferns. Coral Bells, columbine, lewisia, lobelia cardinalis, ribes, salvia spathacea, fragraria, dicentra, calycanthus, philadelphus or Mock Orange and carpenteria to name just a few.

What veggies can you grow in shade? Without much sun, plants photosynthesize less and produce less sugar. On the bright side- no pun intended – shade does offer some benefits. Gardens in the shade don’t have to be watered as often and weeds don’t grow as quickly.

Root crops and leafy plants can tolerate more shade than fruiting crops. Beets, carrots, celery and turnip will grow quite happily in partial shade. So will shallots and bunching onions, cilantro, garlic, chives, kale, leeks, parsley and thyme. Leafy plants can tolerate partial to light shade because their leaves grow larger to absorb the sunlight the plants need. In very light shade areas concentrate on leafy green like Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, radishes and tarragon.

Shade tolerant vegetables for your brightest spots – the partial shade areas – include beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, summer squash and early maturing tomatoes like Early Girl, Stupice, San Francisco Fog, Isis Candy as well as other cherry tomatoes. Corn and peppers will be lankier and bear later and only modesty in partial shade.

Shade can be decidedly helpful to some crops. Leafy greens will be more tender and succulent, without the bitterness they tend to acquire when conditions are too hot. A combination of a bit of afternoon shade and an abundance of moisture will help cut-and-come-again crops like broccoli, lettuce, cabbage and celery stay in good condition longer in hot weather.

Whatever plants you grow in your shady garden, be sure not to crowd them. Plants tend to sprawl there and if placed too close together they will compete for available light. Place your vegetables plants wherever they will get the most light even if it means putting different crops in separate places. A small harvest is still better than no harvest at all.

Sure, every garden is different- different look, different soil, different degree of shade, but it’s surprising how often one of these plants plays a starring or supporting role in a vignette or border

Those of us who live under the trees know a shady garden is a pleasant place to spend time on a hot summer day. Be thankful for what you do have.

Good Plants to Espalier

Sometimes it seems that every gardener who asks me for advice has the same problem: “What can I do with my narrow planting area?” It might be a fence line that needs something pretty or an area against the house but whatever problem spot you have there’s a solution for you.

Apple tree trained as an espalier

You might be considering a vine on a trellis and there are many to choose from but are there other plants that can be trained to grow flat against a wall, supported on a lattice or a framework of stakes? An espaliered plant can be a fruit tree or ornamental tree or shrub. While most any tree or large shrub can be made into an espalier, the trick is to select a species that will ultimately fit your space and conditions. There are many plants you might not have thought about that are easy to train so they don’t take up too much space.

The practice of training fruit bearing plants like fig, apple and pear and citrus dates back to the Roman and Egyptians, but it was the Europeans – specifically the French – who perfected the designs we see today.

Narrow spaces can be challenging. One of my favorite plants that naturally grows flat is grewia occidentalis or Lavender Starflower. it grows fast in sun and attracts hummingbirds and other birds. Beautiful lavender flowers cover the plant from spring to fall.

Another plant, azara microphylla, also grows flat without much coaxing on your part. This small dainty tree is fast growing and reaches 15-25 ft tall. The yellow flower clusters will fill your garden with the scent of white chocolate in late winter. They are ideal between structures. I’ve used the variegated version to screen a shower and it’s working great. The chocolate fragrance of this plant is really what makes it a show stopper.

Red flowering quince

Flowering quince is another old garden staple providing early color. They are easy to care for and nearly indestructible in almost any soil that is well drained and not overly fertile. Once established quince is a very drought tolerant plant and their spiny branches make them an excellent choice for hedges, screening or as a security barrier. There are red, pink, orange and white flowering varieties. The Toyo Nishiki cultivar even has pink, white and solid red flowers all on the same branch.

Another small tree, the Compact Carolina cherry laurel can be espaliered also in a narrow space if needed. It grows 10 ft tall but that may be all you need to screen the neighbor. They are drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and the perfect host for birds, bees and butterflies. The leaves smell like cherries when crushed which gives this plant it’s common name.

Abutilon ‘Kathy Bells’

Other ornamental shrubs that make great espaliered plants are abutilon, bougainvillea in frost free areas, callistemon, camellia, dodonaea, feijoa, gingko, sarcococca, viburnum, ribes, rhaphiolepis, pyracantha, pittosporum tobira and osmanthus fragrans. Trees that can be trained include cercis, agonis flexuosa, eriobotrya, and podocarps.

A fremontodendron waiting to be trained as an espalier

California native plants that can be espaliered are garrya, fremontodendron. Carolina cherry, flowering currant, vine maple and ceanothus while the branches are young and supple.

Don’t be overwhelmed if an espalier gets out of hand during the season. Just nip the branches back to a leaf node. Use heavy jute to attach the branch to the support wire or stake. After a season the jute will rot away which keeps the branch from being girdled by the restraint.

Fragrance In the Garden – How and Where

Nemesia with carnations

As you walk around your garden enjoying the fragrance of the different flowers you may be thinking back to your mother’s garden and the clove-scented carnations she grew or the sweet peas that remind you of that neighbor who grew them next-door and loved to share. Our sense of smell is a powerful trigger to past memories.

Fragrance in flowers is nature’s ways of encouraging pollination. Just as it draws you to take a deeper whiff, it lures insects to blossoms hidden by leaves. Some flowers are fragrant only at night and attract night-flying pollinators like moths, while others are more fragrant during the day and attract insects like bees and butterflies.

The fragrance itself comes from essential oils called attars that vaporize easily and infuse the air with their scents.

Aroma chemistry is complex and the smell of any flower comes from more than a single chemical compound. These molecules are present in different combinations in different plants, but often they are markedly similar which is why there are irises that smell like grapes and roses that smell like licorice.

Our noses can detect those chemical compounds that have a major impact on the aroma. Often a particular molecule will make a large contribution.

Some roses, for instance, derive their scent from rose oxide and others from beta-damascenome or rose ketones. These molecules are detectable by our noses at very, very low concentrations. Carnations, violets, lilies, chrysanthemums, hyacinth- all have their own set of compounds that contribute to their scent.

Lonicera heckrottii

It’s interesting also that as we become accustomed to the same smells our brain phases them out. A compound called ionones, found in violets and rose oil, can essentially short-circuit our sense of smell, binding to the receptors. This shut down is only temporary and the ionones can soon be detected again and registered as a new smell.

Place sweet-smelling plants where you can enjoy them throughout the season. The potency of flower scents varies greatly, so consider the strength of a fragrance when deciding where to put a plant. Subtle fragrances such as sweet peas. lemon verbenas, scented geraniums and chocolate cosmos smell wonderful right outside the back door. Add stronger scents where people naturally congregate- decks, pools and spa areas, dining alcoves, gazebos. Stargazer lilies, jasmine, lilacs, daphne, citrus and peonies will make your guests linger.

Your front entry should have fragrant plants to greet you when you come home. Train a fragrant climbing rose over a pergola at the gate. Fill some of the containers in your entry with scented bedding plants like dianthus, nemesia, freesias, stock or aromatic evergreens like rosemary and lavender. Plant sweet smelling shrubs like Mexican orange, buddleja, or philadelphus beside a path. Or plant carnations or lavender next to a garden bench or near your hammock.

Be sure to include fragrant plants that release their scent in the evening, especially in the areas of the garden you most frequent after dark. Since the majority of night-scented blossoms have white flowers, these plants also light up the landscape at night. Angel trumpet or brugmansia is one such plant as is flowering tobacco and night blooming jessamine.

Several easy-to-grow shrubs have fragrant flowers as an added bonus. Choisya blooms smell like oranges as does pittosporum eugenoides, tenuifolium and tobira. The tiny flower cluster of osmanthus have a delicate apricot fragrance.

Philadelpus lewisii growing near Felton Covered Bridge

Other fragrant plants include California native Philadelphus lewisii. Calycanthus occidentals is native to our Central and Northern California mountains. Their fragrant burgundy flowers smell like red wine. Ribes viburnifolium, carpenteria californica, vine maple and rosa californica are mildly scented, too.

Ideally, when you’ve finished, your garden will smell as intriguing as an expensive perfume. The top note will be floral- jasmine, honeysuckle, rose. The middle register will be spicy, such as the vanilla of heliotrope or purple petunias or the clove of dianthus. Finally, underneath the tones that give perfumes their vigor, like artemisia, sage and santolina.

Not every inch of the garden needs to be fragrant but a waft or two of fragrance from the right plants can turn a garden from ordinary to enchanting.

Growing Flowers for Cutting

Wild Blue Yonder and Golden Celebration roses with alstroemeria

Go ahead and bask in the beauty of your spring garden this year after so much rain. Then start planning and planting to add more cut flowers so you can bring the outside in. Even if you have a lot of flowers already for bouquets there is always that nook or cranny that can fit one more.

A friend of mine has a garden that has so many roses and other flowers that she can cut huge bouquets for her own tables and still have enough to share with friends. Admiring a colorful mixed bouquet of roses and alstroemeria on her table the other day I was envious that my meager shady garden produces only enough flowers for the hummingbirds. If you yearn for more flowers in your garden I have some ideas for you.

Comapassion rose

“If I only had one rose in my garden”, my friend said to me, “I’d plant ‘Compassion.” I can tell you after receiving a bouquet of this beautiful double apricot, copper and gold rose from her that she’s on to something. Exceptionally fragrant, this profuse continual bloomer is also disease resistant even in part shade. It can be grown as a large shrub but is more effective when trained as a climber where its fragrance can be enjoyed along a path near your doorway or alongside a patio or deck. The fragrance is a combination of honey and peaches. A small bouquet scented my entire house.

If you are looking to increase your cut flower potential like I am, here are some suggestions. For starters it’s always good to grow perennial plants that come back every year but self sowing annuals are also great so don’t forget to plant some of those also. Self-sowing annuals that have a long vase life are bachelor buttons, clarkia, cosmos, flax, love-in-a-mist, nasturtium, cleome and calendula. Zinnia, snapdragon, statice and marigolds also make good cut flowers.

For sunny spots grow perennial penstemon and kangaroo paw. Coreopsis attract butterflies and are long lasting in bouquets. Coneflowers, dahlias, gloriosa daisy, delphinium, foxglove, scabiosa, aster, shasta daisy and yarrow also make good cut flowers. Penstemon are good for cutting and the tubular flowers attract hummingbirds.

Native flowers that last for a week or more in a bouquet include clarkia and sticky monkeyflower. Yarrow and hummingbird sage will last 4-6 days in a vase. Our native shrub philadelphus, also called mock orange, has flowers that smell like oranges and will grow in some shade as well as sun.

Mixed bouquet of Oakleaf hydrangea with Marjorie Channon pittosporum

The secret to a fabulous bouquet is not just the flowers but the interesting foliage and that is something we all have in our gardens. Great foliage plants come in all shapes and sizes. In shady gardens, fragrant variegated daphne odora is a wonderful small shrub for both flowers and foliage. Sweet olive or osmanthus fragrans is a large evergreen shrub with apricot scented blooms. Pittosporum ‘Marjorie Channon’ will add white with a hint of lime to your bouquets. Oakleaf hydrangea foliage and flowers look great in bouquets during the summer and the leaves turn red in fall as an added bonus.

Foliage from shrubs such as abelia, breath of heaven, California bay, ornamental grasses, grapes and other vines, herbs, woody tree branches like smoke tree and Japanese maple also look handsome in a bouquet.

Compassion rose in a bouquet

To make cut flowers last, pick them early in the morning before they are stressed by heat. Pull off any foliage or flowers that will be below the water level in the vase. Fill a clean vase with 3 parts lukewarm water mixed with 1 part lemon-lime soda, 1 teaspoon vinegar and a crushed aspirin. Another recipe for floral food is 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 tablespoons white vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon bleach in 1 quart water. The sugar helps buds open and last longer, the acid improves water flow in the stems and the bleach reduces the growth of bacteria and fungus. Change the water and re-cut the stems every few days to enjoy your bouquet for a week or even longer.

Holiday Traditions & Customs

We all celebrate the holidays in different ways. Each family has their own traditions and warm memories from years gone by. Some of us celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah, some Kwanzaa. Many of our traditional Christmas customs originate from Winter Solstice celebrations. The plants associated with each are an important part of tradition and symbolism.

Winter solstice is the 21st of December. Solstice literally means “Sun Stands Still’ and for a few days around this time of year the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. They have been with us for thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on the return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the plants from traditional winter solstice celebrations into our own- holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary and mistletoe. How did this come about?

A holiday wreath made with holly and evergreens welcomes visitors

Holly remains green throughout the year when deciduous trees like the oak shed their leaves. Decorating with it throughout the home has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland since holly was one of the main plants that was green and beautiful with its red berries at this time of year. Norseman and Celts planted a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of holly leaves gave rise to its association with lightning and in fact holly does conduct lighting into the ground better than most trees.

Holiday wreath made with hydrangea, camelia, berries, tea tree blossoms, variegated pittosporum 

Like other evergreens, ivy symbolizes immortality and eternal life. In England it is traditionally used in kissing balls with holly and mistletoe. It has also stood for fidelity, healing and marriage. Ancient Romans thought it brought good luck and joy. It was worn as a crown or fashioned into wreaths or garland.

Evergreen trees play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar, pine boughs and wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from the branches in groves. This may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree or Yule tree in December originated. Other sacred trees of the solstice are yew, birch, arborvitae and ash.

We often see rosemary plants trained into a Christmas tree shape. Rosemary is evergreen in the winter and blooms at the same time making it the perfect plant for the holidays. Traditionally rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas as people walked over the herb releasing the fragrant scent and filling the home with blessings and protection.

How did our enduring fascination with mistletoe get started? From earliest times it has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of Greeks, Celts, Scandinavia, England and European folklore in general.The Druids believed the mistletoe’s magical powers extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was know as the “all healer”. Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant has no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.

Kissing under the mistletoe probably came from the Greek/Roman belief that it bestowed fertility and had life-giving power. In Scandinavia it was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could kiss and make up. However this tradition originated it’s a good one.

Traditional plants symbolic of Hanukkah are the citron, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds. The Four Species are waved together along with special blessings as part of the synagogue service or at home.
Kwanzaa, another celebration of light, features the harvest foods of Africa: ears of corn, fruit and nuts. It is a secular celebration observed during the last week of December to celebrate the “fruit” or accomplishments coming out of the year of labor.

Around the world, holiday celebrations have their own special meaning. With friends and family, embrace your traditions and have a wondrous holiday.